New flavor profiles elevate this school cafeteria favorite for the full-service industry.

Most chefs probably don’t think back to elementary school lunches when they look for menu inspiration, but maybe they should. Tots—that school cafeteria classic—are experiencing tremendous growth in restaurants. NPD Group’s SupplyTrack 12 Month Data Ending November 2017 reports that tots, also known as puffs, are experiencing nearly two times greater pound growth than the overall frozen potato category.

The question on the minds of some restaurant leaders, however, is whether this whimsical, nostalgic dish fits on menus at full-service restaurant concepts. Deenya Rabius, director of marketing, foodservice for Lamb Weston, thinks so. “The restaurants that aren’t offering puffs on their menus mostly haven’t seen the opportunity,” she says. “There is huge consumer interest and demand for puffs, but when we think about that particular product, many people think of children and school cafeterias.”

Surprisingly it’s not children driving these increases. According to NPD Group SupplyTrack 12 Month Data Ending November 2017, full-service restaurant puff sales volume has grown 11.7 percent, or 4.3mm pounds, with over 80 percent of the growth volume coming from the more adult-oriented bar and grill segment. In addition, per Lamb Weston proprietary research, puffs are potential traffic drivers whereby 56 percent of consumers say that if a restaurant offered a puff, it would impact their likelihood of visiting.

Many people associate puffs with their other common application: Breakfast. However, they are now seen on menus that don’t traditionally serve breakfast—and restaurants are experimenting with them, which is helping drive this consumer excitement. For example, puffs are now featured on 7.7 percent of casual-dining menus—traditionally a non-breakfast focused segment—which represents 124 percent growth in menu penetration since 2013, according to Datassential MenuTrends. Rabius says this new frontier for puffs is helping drive consumer interest.

“That puff you saw in a grade school cafeteria is now in a bar, and there are funky flavors on it that you normally wouldn’t associate with it, and it’s probably at lunch or dinner instead of breakfast,” Rabius says. “All of those elements create this sense of excitement.”

Another big plus for puffs is the whimsical image already associated with the product. Not only do they bring diners back to younger carefree days, but the shape is also unique and not often found at full-service restaurants. Pairing this exciting form with bold, unexpected flavors adds appeal for diners and makes puffs a great addition to almost any brand. “You can come up with so many different flavor concepts depending on your menu and restaurant theme,” Rabius says.

In fact, many restaurant concepts are serving puffs with a variety of innovative sauces and flavors that are giving this dish new life. One trend—“topped and loaded”—has seen significant growth since 2007. While menu penetration for puffs has grown a healthy 244 percent in the last 11 years, the penetration for loaded puffs has grown by nearly 20X for the same period according to Datassential 2017 MenuTrends research.

These loaded puffs are served like nachos and may be topped, smothered, or covered with decadent ingredients and sauces that are sometimes paired with other potato dishes, like chili, cheese, bacon, gravy, poutine, sour cream, and chives. Other restaurants, however, are branching out and pairing puffs with unexpected flavors.

“You’ll see anything from Southwest flavor profiles to Asian flavor profiles,” Rabius says. “Some dishes are more traditional, like bacon and cheese and chives, and then you also have new emerging flavors, like wasabi. A restaurant could really go anywhere with puffs, and they fit with any restaurant concept.”

Datassential reports that combinations pairing loaded potatoes with sauces such as buffalo, barbecue, salsa, queso, bleu cheese, ranch, and guacamole have already reached proliferation in restaurants. Other sauces and ingredients, like beer cheese, sriracha, pulled pork, pico de gallo, and pastrami have reached the adoption phase and are prime for exploration. Bolder restaurant concepts might try combinations in the inception phase, like puffs and Alfredo, Gruyere, kimchi, remoulade, pork belly, short rib, or burrata.

Though many chefs are interested in exploring exciting new flavors amid the rise of the global food trend, offering consumers new ingredients comes with risks. While many diners want to try new flavors, many are hesitant to try unfamiliar ingredients and flavors that they may not like. This can impact a restaurant’s budget when ingredient inventory goes to waste.

Restaurants can entice customers to order these bold creations by offering them in a shareable form. Shareable appetizers allow consumers to enjoy a new flavor experience with friends without investing in a whole portion they may not like. Because puffs are a compact finger food, they are easy to split at the table.

Another smart strategy to begin introducing consumers to new flavor profiles is pairing them with well-known fare. Because puffs are so familiar to consumers, restaurants can combine them with lesser known toppings and sauces to put diners at ease. This removes barriers that might keep otherwise adventurous diners from ordering new cuisine. Additionally, by exploring these flavors with cost-effective sauces or toppings paired with a base that can be used for other applications, restaurants can test which ingredients will perform on their menus before they make large investments.

Puffs are also a very versatile base for these toppings because they hold up to sauces without becoming soggy, Rabius says. “Operationally, they are easy to make, and it’s hard to make a mistake with them.”

Amid high industry-wide turnover rates and a labor shortage, finding strong kitchen talent can be a challenge, so using items that are operationally efficient, yet delicious, is critical. Puffs are easy to portion and to cook, which can reduce training time and reduce kitchen waste from mistakes. Restaurants that already serve puffs can also increase menu diversity by serving puffs in different forms or across dayparts without increasing operational complexity.

“Most restaurateurs are looking for ways to use the same product across multiple parts of their menus,” Rabius says. “You can come up with an unexpected flavor combination, whether it’s a dipping sauce or a topped and loaded recipe to combine the new and the familiar. You can also serve puffs as a side, an appetizer, or as a shareable.”

Seeing upscale puffs in a sit-down restaurant is such a novelty that they can also be a powerful sales driver. Datassential reports that consumers are willing to pay up to $1 more for loaded puffs than loaded fries, and adding premium ingredients and flavors can further elevate this dish and its earning potential. When restaurants are fighting to earn every dollar and differentiate from competition in a crowded market, these small advantages make a big impact on the bottom line.

“It’s a fun product and nostalgia is certainly a part of that,” Rabius says. “I think we all think of puffs fondly, and they are such a hot product right now on so many levels. Just give them a try if they fit within your concept. It’s a no-lose move.”

Further capitalizing on the puff growth trends, Lamb Weston recently announced a new Seashore-flavored Tater Puff launching this April. 

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